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Ottawa to tread carefully in War of 1812 commemorations Add to ...

It’s a sticky question. Exactly how should Canada commemorate the 200th anniversary of a war in which our predecessors repelled an invasion by the United States – now this country’s closest ally and most valued trading partner?

The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is fast approaching. It’s a major formative event in Canada’s history – but like all wars, was wrenching and destructive. Both the White House and early Parliament buildings in Upper Canada were torched during the conflict.

For the Harper government in Ottawa, the approach to this anniversary is nuanced: energetically embracing military exploits and valour during the conflict – standing fast against invaders, for instance – while taking extra care to avoid inciting anti-American sentiment.

The Conservatives are launching a major drive to commemorate the conflict in 2012 and beyond – in keeping with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s penchant for making heroism in Canada’s military history a more important feature of the country’s national identity. The Tories even made an ambitious 1812 observance part of their winning 2011 election platform.

Ottawa’s messaging, though, is carefully crafted to steer Canadians away from chauvinistic jingoism or triumphalism at having repelled the Americans in the long-ago war.

“This is not meant to be antagonistic. This is not in any way meant to upset or put a sour taste in anybody’s mouth,” federal Heritage Minister James Moore said of 1812 commemorations.

“This is meant to remind Canadians of the importance of the War of 1812 in the development of Canada.”

While it will celebrate historical icons such as Isaac Brock and Laura Secord, the government is preparing to play up the relative lack of conflict with the United States since. In more than one news release on remembering the war, the Tories also mention “two centuries of peaceful co-existence with the United States” that followed.

Canadian military historian Jack Granatstein predicts anti-American sentiment will nevertheless be stirred up – through no fault of the Harper government.

“I think this is going to turn into an anti-American festival, no matter what the government does.”

The Conservatives have promised to erect a new War of 1812 monument in the National Capital region. They’re going to designate October, 2012, as a “month of commemoration” of the heroes and key battles of the war.

They’re planning to sponsor hundreds of events and re-enactments across the country and honour military regiments that “perpetuate the identities of War of 1812 militia units.”

Ottawa has already spent millions of dollars restoring sites linked to the war.

Mr. Harper has taken a close interest in the 1812 commemoration plans, Mr. Moore said.

“The Prime Minister is personally very involved in this because he recognizes that, unlike a lot of other countries where you sort of have a singular watershed moment – or a Gettysburg address – we have not as many of these moments which are pan-Canadian in consequence in terms of the development of the country.”

Mr. Granatstein forecasts that the sparks will fly across the border as 2012 approaches. He expects Americans to claim during their observances that they won the war – and Canadians to reminisce about “how we … fought off the evil Americans.”

The historian considers the War of 1812 to have ended in a draw and says that Canadians have exaggerated the role their predecessors played in taking up arms to fend off U.S. invaders.

Much of the work was done by British troops, he said, but over time “the role of the British was swept aside and the role of the locals was given predominance.”

What’s important though, is that the U.S. invasion ultimately failed, shattering Thomas Jefferson’s 1812 prediction that the “acquisition of Canada this year … will be a mere matter of marching.”

Mr. Moore said the main thrust of 1812 celebration efforts are really “an internal message to Canadians” about the beginnings of this country. “This was the fight for Canada.”

The Heritage Minister said he’s spoken to U.S. embassy officials but heard “not a hint of any kind of discomfort with” Canada’s 1812 commemoration plans.



Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

 

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